Thursday, December 22, 2005

Ten Good Things To Do In Oaxaca Besides Watch T.V. and stuff yourself with tortillas:

1) Try some crunchy "chapulines" or grasshoppers seasoned with chile, salt, and lemon. It´s believed that if you eat one, you will return to Oaxaca one day. (We ate at least five of them each--a bit crunchy and flavorful but not as good as popcorn)

2) Go to a Mezcal "fabrica" and watch how the famous tequila-related liquor is made. Chew on the freshly fermented leaves (they taste like baked pumpkin with brown sugar). Gulp down a "gusano" worm with your shot of Mezcal. Distinguished from tequila which is made from the blue agave and produced on an industrial level, Mezcal has a hardy, smoky flavor. Many Mezcal stores also produce "Crema de Mezcal" liqueurs (coconut, almond, peach, cafe flavors) for gringos who can´t stomach the Mexican liquor straight.

3) Visit the Zapotec rug-making pueblo of Teotitlan to learn how the famous wool is dyed using natural plants and insects. "Cocchineal" is a cactus-loving worm/insect which is ground up to create a deep crimson natural dye. Compounds like lemon, salt, and water are mixed with the cocchineal to create up to 45 other colors which the Teotitlan artisans use to dye their wool and weave into exquisite designed rugs.

4) Hike in the mountains through the pine forests and through "bosques" of white moss. "Los Pueblos Mancomunados" is an excellent area of the Sierra Norte to base a multi-day trek along pre-hispanic roads and Zapotec trails which wind through villages, forests, and fields of agave, corn, and small family-run orchards and a trout farm.

5) Visit a chocolate "fabrica" and watch chocolate beans, cinnamon, and sugar being ground up to create Oaxaquenan chocolate. Order several different types of hot chocolate with straws and share with a friend!

6) Wander the "zocalo" or central plaza at night and watch for live music, salsa/flamenco/tango dancing, and local entertainment.

7) Have lunch at "El Mercado Juarez." After wandering the stalls of chocolate, mole, fruits, nuts, spices, and breads, sit down for a "pollo con mole negro," made with chocolate, nuts, chiles, and dried fruit, or try a "tlayuda," or Oaxaquenan style giant tortilla--stuffed with frijoles, carne, locally-made cheese, tomatoes, and onions--folded in half and grilled.

8) Visit any of the local ruins like Mitla or Monte Alban where the ancient human sacrificial ceremonies make "Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom" seem like a Disney movie.

9) Go to a festival. Any festival. Although Christmas is a splendid time of year to visit, with festivals occuring almost every day, each pueblo has its own celebrations throughout the year to celebrate their patron saint. Another good time to visit is during "Dia De Los Muertos" when Christianity and pagan traditions mix in a festive and wonderfully macabre celebration of life and the afterlife.

10) Eat as much as possible. Get lost in Oaxaca city late at night and buy from one of the moving "Cocinas" which appear once it gets dark. (We just discovered an eighty year old woman last night whose "cocina" appears on a street west of the plaza. Her customers have been coming to eat her "Tlayudas" for over forty years now. She has someone help her push her cart of cooking supplies to the same spot every night.

11) Visit "Hierva del Agua," a petrified waterfall and mineral hot spring, perched on the edge of the mountains with an extraordinary 270 degree view of the surrounding mountain ranges and Valle de Oaxaca. Grab some water and a Tlayuda, sit back, and breathe the warm high desert air and appreciate one of the finest views in Mesoamerica...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Adventures in The Land Of Seven Moles...
December 21, 2005
Oaxaca, Mexico

I´ve been rather remiss in writing during this trip because we´ve been so busy. There´s so much to absorb here and we´ve been away in the mountains for a couple of days...from eating grasshoppers at the market to trekking between villages and wandering through the Zapotec markets, we´ve hand our little gringa hands quite full with all things Oaxaquena!

But first, a quick fact flash on the state of Oaxaca. This state is rich with indigenous groups, the Zapotecs comprising the majority near the capital city. Oaxaca boasts 16 distinct indigenous languages and a staggering diversity of cultural groups. For centuries it has developed and retained its own distinct languages, cultural customs, and cuisine unique in Mexico. I´ve felt more comfortable traveling here as a woman than any other Latin American country. In the colonial city of Oaxaca, you can walk around by yourself at any time of night and feel completely safe. The feel are wonderfully amable and tranquila!

Oaxaquenan Comida:

The main square looks European from its colonial roots and the smaller pueblos are lined with cobblestone streets. World-renowned for its cuisine, Oaxaquenan food is the best of almost all cuisine in Mexico. Chocolate comes from this area and the Zapotecs have been using it in their dishes and drinks for centuries. Also famous are their multiple mole sauces made from chocolate, various fruits and nuts, guajillo chilies, tomatoes, onions, and spices. On the second day here, we attended a cooking class out in the country where we slow-cooked chicken marinated in mole negro and wrapped in banana leaves, ricotta and drunken raisin stuffed crepes with a sweet potato and pineapple sauce, and fresh organic greens drizzled with a citrus dressing, toasted almonds, fresh farm cheese, and pomegranate seeds.

We´ve wandered through the markets tasting as many different dishes as possible...including toasted whole grasshoppers spiced with chile and limon. My favorites have been the "tlayudas" or Zapotec style quesadillas which are large toasted tortillas grilled and filled with a red chile sauce, frijoles, avocado, tomato, and onions, and meat of your choice. Other favorites have been "mole negro con pollo" or the "entomatodos" which are corn tortillas soaked in a home-made tomato-garlic-chili sauce and garnished with cilantro, onions, and fresh queso.

Every other street corner are mescal stores which give free tastings of locally-produced mescal (different from tequila which is made from blue agave). Bars of chocolate are also sold around the pueblos and city for making Oaxaquenan hot chocolate with milk. Sabrosa!
The Trekking:

We were fortunate enough to have chosen the newest Lonely Planet guide to Mexico which just recently added a section on "Los Pueblos Mancomunados," a group of eight Zapotec villages in the Sierra Norte mountain range which, for centuries, have pooled their resources to glean an income from selective foresting and ecotourism. They have a network of trails which connect the villages and adobe cabanas for trekkers to stay in.

From the very start, we were impressed by their organization and dedication to sharing and teaching extranjeros about their history and villages. We began trekking at around 9500 feet through pine forests along clear mountain streams, the air sweet and pure. We hiked along dirt roads lined by giant seven foot tall agaves which dwarfed us. past farmers hand-cutting their fields of corn, small groups of goats with their baby cabritas, and along steep ridges with views that stretched across other mountain ranges.

Part of the trail between two of the villages followed a cobblestone pre-hispanic road that dates back several centuries. Our guides (who are required because of the circuitous routes through the forest) offered us "pulque," a local liquor made from the larger agaves and tasting a bit like fizzy apple cider) and had us taste various fruits and herbs we came across on our trek.

Giant pine and deciduous trees dripped with wispy strands of "musco blanco" or "white moss" which clung to branches like feathery cobwebs, lending a whimsical feeling to the forest. Bromeliads grew from trees above hillsides of agave and prickly pear. I´ve never seen anything like the botanical mix there.
We spent our evenings in small villages eating out of local kitchens where women cooked over open fires. Plates of "entomatados," frijoles, potatoes with chilies, and "huevos mexicanos" served with hot tortillas. The women would boil milk or water and mix it with bars of chocolate (traded for from the city for their corn) until it was frothy. We would fall asleep to the sound of a crackling fire in our bunk beds, laughing about how relative the word "flat trail" is to the Zapotec.

My legs were in such pain at the end of our three day trek that I limped for two days when we returned to Oaxaca City. At our hostel, I had to descend stairways backwards because my calves were in such pain.
Yesterday we joined other travelers for a tour of local Zapotec ruins, a mineral bath hot spring and petrified waterfall, and a mescal distillery.

Mom and I have been getting along smashingly (except for one small fight on our trek) and her Spanish continues to improve daily. We both wake up in the morning, our heads swimming with thoughts and fragments in puro espanol. We´ve met many travelers from Germany, Australia, Italy, Mexico, and only a few Americans-one of whom is from Santa Barbara ironically!

The American and I discovered a local bar called "La Cucaracha" which offers a fine selection of mescal, tequila, beer, and tapas. Several of us stayed out until early morning listening to a local guitarist who is incredibly talented and plays some very familiar Mexican music which Antonio Banderas sang in "Desperado."
The waiter there has taken quite a shine to me. He´s handsome, suave, bright, and about four and a half feet tall. If I remained sitting down our relationship could work. :)

At night, Mom and I wander through the plaza and markets, hot chocolates in hand, tasting new foods, and listening to Mexican Christmas carols sung in front of the iglesia.

Last night as we walked back to our hotel, our hands full with hot chocolates, fresh french fries bought from a street vendor, and a pastry, Mamacita complained that her apple pie wasn´t salty enough and I lamented that we are going to miss the famous Radish Festival this weekend.

Traveling is rough indeed. Espero que todos de ustedes disfruten todos los dias de esta temporada! I hope each of you are enjoying every day during this holiday season!

Con much amor, Raquelita and her Mamacita

Monday, December 05, 2005

Quote of the Week:
"I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom."
Simone de Beauvoir, "The Blood of Others"

Thursday, December 01, 2005

World's Greatest Travel Partner--my Mamacita--and I will be traveling to Oaxaca over the holidays this year. We'll be searching for the world's tastiest mole sauces, visiting Mayan temples, and trekking between mountain villages before the Christmas holidays.